Byzantine Positions towards the notions of “Holy War”
The current study aims to re-approach the issue of religious warfare in Byzantium by exploring Byzantine attitudes towards the conception of crusade in the period 1096-1204. The study aims to analyse Byzantine positions towards the idea of divinely ordained and spiritually meritorious warfare, based on a comparison of Byzantine reactions to the Muslim concept of jihād with Byzantine reactions to the western Christian concept of crusade. The main part of the paper focuses on the exploration of Byzantine attitudes towards the two core ideas that made crusade a notion of ‘holy war’, the ideas of deus vult and remissio peccatorum.
My latest contribution to the debate about the (non-)existence of a Byzantine notion of ‘holy war’ focused on the methodological argument that the concept of ‘holy war’ is defined and distinguished by two core ideas:
First, by the idea that warfare is arbitrarily justified as divine order, i.e. command; second, that warfare is perceived and propagated as a means of religion employed against infidels or heretics, thus granting the believer-warriors absolution and sanctification. The main aim of the current study is to re-approach and elaborate this argument through scrutinizing Byzantine attitudes towards the concept of crusade. The main focus is set, here, on a comparison of Byzantine reactions towards the concept of jihād, which scholars of medieval studies almost unanimously categorize as a medieval notion of ‘holy war’, with Byzantine reactions to crusade, which is generally regarded as the western Christian notion of ‘holy war’. Since the issue of Byzantine positions towards the Muslim perception of religious warfare has already been subject of analysis, it will be summarily presented here and will function as a starting-point for a comparative exploration of Byzantine attitudes towards the ‘holy war’ aspect of crusade in order to highlight similarities or differences with regard to the Byzantine reaction in each case.
Although a great number of studies have dealt with the issue of Byzantine policies and attitudes towards the Crusades, the question of Byzantine understanding of those western ideas that made crusade a notion of ‘holy war’, i.e. the ideas of deus vult and remissio peccatorum, has not been yet thoroughly explored. The central aim of the study is therefore to clarify the Byzantine position towards the western Christian idea that the waging of warfare can be justified as divine will and that death or killing in battle against infidel enemies can be perceived as a means per se to achieve. This question concerns not only the issue of absolution and sanctification the Byzantine understanding of crusade but also the issue of the existence of a Byzantine type of ‘holy war’, which differs in its special characteristics from crusade as well as from jihād.
1. Byzantine positions towards the concept of jihād
First, a short overview of the Byzantine positions towards the concept of jihād is necessary in order to highlight the antithesis between the Byzantine and the Muslim perception of the relation between religion and warfare. Byzantine polemic is directed against the two core ideas that enable the categorization of jihād as a species of ‘holy war’: the idea that God commanded the subjugation or annihilation of the infidel and the idea that the believer could gain eternal life in Heaven and become a martyr through his participation in divinely ordained warfare. The first polemical mention of a Byzantine source against the Islamic concept of shahīd (i.e. warrior-martyr) is found in the work of Theophanes the Confessor, written in the beginning of the 9th century. The author defines Mohammed’s religion as a heresy and emphasizes the absurdity of the idea that the killing of the enemy or being killed by the enemy in warfare can be spiritually meritorious. A few decades later, during the reign of Michael III, Nicetas Byzantius rejects in his answering letter to a Muslim theologian the Islamic idea that the killing of men could be legitimated as divine will. The Byzantine author, based on a rationalized Christian ethic, argues that killing and, consequently, warfare can by no means be perceived as a religious task, since God cannot wish and favour the destruction of his noblest creation, i.e. man. Within the framework of this idea Leo VI blames the Arabs in his military treatise “Tactica” for being impious, since they believe God to be the cause of every evil deed and to rejoice in war, whereas God disperses the warmongering nations. Finally, Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos refers to the Muslim concept of absolution through participation in warfare in two passages of his political treatise “De administrando imperio” and denounces it. In the first passage, he characterizes Mohammed as madman and deluded because of his teachings that killing the enemy or being killed by the enemy will bring his followers to Heaven. In the second, he copies out word for word Theophanes’ polemic.
In view of the source evidence which shows that the Byzantines had no understanding for, but were rather hostile towards the Muslim perception that war could be divinely motivated and justified, becoming thus a means of plenary remission of sins, it is important to emphasize that the theological dispute between Byzantines and Muslims referred to the common God of the monotheistic tradition of the Scriptures. This is made clear in Theophanes’ mention of Islam as heresy, which is adopted by Constantine Porphyrogennetos, as well as in the case of Nicetas Byzantios, in which the theological debate refers to the differentiated interpretation of the one God. This means that the negative Byzantine attitude towards the ideas of divinely ordained warfare and spiritually meritorious death in battle cannot be simply attributed to the political and cultural animosity caused by the otherness of the Muslims and their God. Byzantine rejection of the Muslim notion of ‘holy war’ was formulated on an ideological – theological level that concerned also their own religion, since it referred to the differentiated Byzantine perception of God’s relation to warfare. In this light, all aforementioned statements demonstrate a negative Byzantine attitude towards the core ideas of the ‘holy war’ concept in the period before the First Crusade and stand in clear contradiction with present-day theories which highlight Byzantine religious rhetoric in wars fought against infidel enemies as an indication of a Byzantine type of ‘holy war’.
Although there is no reason to believe that the Byzantine position towards jihād changed after the replacement of the Arabs by the Seljuk-Turks as the main enemy of the Empire in the East, the initiation of the Crusade movement towards the end of the eleventh century raises the question of a possible influence of the western Christian notion of war against the infidel as a divinely ordained means of absolution on Byzantine mentality and, consequently, on Byzantine war ethic. My working hypothesis is that a negative Byzantine reaction to the Latin ideas of deus vult and remissio peccatorum will demonstrate an ideological continuity with regard to Byzantine rejection of the core ideas of the ‘holy war’ concept and verify that this concept never became predominant within Byzantine society. On the contrary, a positive Byzantine reaction would mean a turning point in comparison to the Byzantine positions towards jihād and, consequently, give ground for a reconsideration of the aforementioned evidence.
2. Byzantine positions towards the concept of crusade
Most of the scholars who have explored Byzantine attitudes towards the Crusades tend to the conclusion that the Byzantines had little or no understanding for the Crusaders and their movement. However, a clear line must be drawn between Byzantine attitudes towards the political and the ideological aspect of the Crusades. Most of the Byzantine authors’ negative comments – especially of the three main historians of that period, Anna Comnena, Ioannis Cinnamus and Nicetas Choniates – about the movement concern its political aspect which clearly contradicted Byzantine political interests. Moreover, these authors may emphasize the political and cultural differences between the Byzantines and the Latins, but do not object to the central aim of the Crusades, i.e. the protection or liberation of fellow Christians and their lands from the Muslims. T. M. Kolbaba highlights this plausible argument in the second part of her paper on religious warfare in Byzantium. Starting with the argument that “Byzantines were familiar with the idea of God commanding a war against the infidel and promising his soldiers rewards in the hereafter”, she points out that Anna Comnena, first and most important source about Byzantine attitudes towards the First Crusade, “never says that the Latins were wrong to launch a war against. In this way, Kolbaba tries to the infidel for the recovery of the holy land” emphasize the differentiated Byzantine attitude towards the political and the ideological aspect of the Crusades and to show that modern scholars are misled by Byzantine statements against the political aspect of the movement, when they declare that the Byzantines were hostile towards the religious dimension of the Crusades. From this point of view, her argument is justified and partly correct. Therefore, it is exactly this distinction between the political and the ideological aspect of the Crusades that we should focus on in order to clarify the Byzantine perception of the western Christian species of religious warfare.
The first and main question related to this matter that needs an answer pertains to how the Byzantines perceived war against the infidel in that period. In this respect Kolbaba’s analysis is problematic as she takes for granted that Byzantines had their own species of ‘holy war’ and consequently they could comprehend and accept the Latin notion. For this opinion, she capitalizes on a present-day theory about the Byzantine ‘holy war’. Two problems arise with regard to this methodological approach.
First, it ignores, or at least downplays, the evidence from the sources of the middle Byzantine period as reflected through the Byzantine polemic against jihād, which demonstrate an explicitly negative Byzantine attitude towards the ideas that warfare could be justified as divine order and perceived as a means for plenary remission of sins. Second, she accepts as her main evidence for a Byzantine notion of ‘holy war’ the employment of religious rhetoric and symbolism in Byzantine wars. By doing so, she ignores the complexity of the set of ideas and beliefs which defined the relation of religion with imperial warfare against all enemies in Byzantium and enabled the Byzantines to differentiate themselves and be critical towards the Muslim or the Latin perception of religious warfare.
The theoretical statements of Leo VI’s military treatise “Tactica” demonstrate the main ideas which defined the relation between religion and warfare in Byzantine thought. The author of the text devotes three paragraphs to the clarification of the concept of dikaios polemos (just war).
In those, he makes clear that a just cause for war was explicitly defined by the natural need of defense, which was identifiable with the integrity of roman territory and the protection of its inhabitants against foreign attack (indifferently whether the enemy was Christian or infidel). In the last constitution (20) as well as in the epilogue of his treatise, he then clarifies the role of God within the Byzantine conception of just war. Among other things he says:
57. I believe it is right that the beginnings of war must be just.
A person defending himself against others who are acting unjustly
is truly just himself and he has divine justice for support and as an
ally in campaigning against the unjust. The person who first begins
injustice has his victory taken away by divine justice itself.
169. Certainly justice must be at the beginning of every action.
More than other actions however, the beginnings of war must be just.
Not only must it be just but war must be conducted with prudence.
For then God will become benevolent and will fight along with our
armies. The men will be more enthusiastic (to fight) when they defend
justice realizing that that they are not initiating injustice, but they
are warding off those committing unjust acts.
14. Preoccupy yourself with the stratagems and with the
armament of the army lest not to act unjustly or to initiate an unjust
war or to launch pillaging and unjust raids against people that have
done you no wrong, but to live in piety and be at peace with the
enemies, as far as it depends on you. Thus, if you act reverently and in
a God-pleasing manner, you will have the weapons for defense against
the unjust enemies.
15. If your pious life encompasses these things, I am sure that
you will have God Himself campaigning with you along with justice.
16. The belief that one is not acting unjustly, but is being treated
unjustly will have God as leader and general and is important to
believe that God has obligated himself to bring a just war to a good
conclusion, the same as an unjust one to the contrary.
17. Just as it is impossible for the unjust person not to suffer
at some time the penalty for his injustice from God the Judge, so
it is also impossible for one who defends himself and fights against injustice not to obtain victory from God. For God is a just judge and
will bring everything about with justice.
The information of the “Tactica” reveals a system of ideas and beliefs in which justice in warfare is explicitly defined by a natural-law cause. The pre-Christian rational principle of defense (which in the Byzantine case could also be distorted through the idea of reconquest) was the only reason that could legitimate Byzantine war action and secure God’s favour for the cause of the war. Within this conception, God and religion can neither define the just character of warfare, nor motivate its initiation; they only become advocates of a justice which is based on human needs. The old-testamentary idea of God being the archetypal source of justice and judgment, which determines everything, i.e. also the outcome of wars, is in this case modified and subordinated to a rationalized concept of justification for the use of armed force. In Byzantine perception, it is not God’s will that can be arbitrarily employed to define any war as just. Justice in warfare was explicitly predefined through the natural-law cause of the maintenance of the territorial integrity of the political entity “roman Empire”. Consequently, the religious element in Byzantine warfare functions as an ideological amplifier of the ethical legitimation of an ideologically “restrained war action” that was motivated and justified by a rational cause, with rational goals thus assimilating to the life-affirming character of modern ‘just war’ conceptions. That is why a Byzantine defeat in a just war fought for the Empire’s defense/restoration was, on the one hand, perceived as a consequence of God’s inscrutable judgment, i.e. as irrational, since God, in opposition to the rational expectations of the righteous fighters, had not helped them to accomplish their rationally righteous cause; on the other hand, it was not understood in retrospect as a sign that the cause of war had been unjust, since justice did not depend on God’s will and therefore could not be doubted irrespective of the outcome of war.
The statements of the “Tactica” point thus to the discrepancy between Byzantine war ethic and the ‘holy war’ aspect of the ambiguous war ideology of the Old Testament. From a Byzantine standpoint, God or religion could not be perceived as wanting and commanding, i.e. causing, war but only as supporting just warfare by association within the framework of the interrelation between the empire and its institutionalized religion in order to ensure that justice would triumph over injustice in terms of a rationally defined cause, i.e. defense/liberation. This subordination of God and religion to the raison d’état enabled the Byzantines to employ a strong religious rhetoric and symbolism not only in wars fought against infidel but also against Christian enemies, as well as in ‘civil’ wars in which both sides were considered to be Christian and roman. In view of these facts, it becomes obvious that the aforementioned argument about a positive Byzantine attitude towards the ‘holy war’ aspect of Crusade, based on the premise that the Byzantine society was familiar with the concept of God commanding a war against the infidel and promising his soldiers rewards in the hereafter, deserves reconsideration.
On a theoretical level, the employment of religious elements (rhetoric – symbolism) in a war motivated and legitimated by a natural-law cause, as evident in Byzantine warfare, raises the question of a distinction between a notion of the ‘just war’ concept, in which religion is employed to amplify a justification based on a natural-law cause, and the concept of ‘holy war’ or war of religion (Religionskrieg), in which the justification stems arbitrarily from the will of a divine power. If we consider the religious rhetoric and symbolism of Byzantine wars, the justification of which was principally defined by the need for defense or restoration of the roman Empire’s territory, as proof of a Byzantine notion of ‘holy war’, we should then reduce the concept of ‘holy war’ to an armed conflict in which the warriors appeal to and expect God’s favour, even though they do not perceive religion to be the principal cause of the war. In such a case, we should promote all Byzantine wars, offensive or defensive, against all enemies (Christians or non-Christians) as well as civil wars to ‘holy wars’, since the Byzantines did not go to war without appealing to and believing in God’s help, as the source evidence clearly shows. Moreover, the fact that in the Byzantine concept of just war God did not arbitrarily command the waging of warfare, but was simply aiding the Byzantines when they were acting righteously within the framework of a natural-law cause, granting thus warfare a religious dimension by association and not by nature, demonstrates the divergence of Byzantine war ethic from Saint Augustine’s ideological tradition. The latter’s work does not preclude the idea that God could ordain and arbitrarily justify the waging of warfare, thus reflecting the influence of the Old Testament on the western medieval perception of war.
Consequently, the case-study of Byzantine war ethics raises two theoretical issues with regard to the applicability of the ‘holy war’ concept to medieval societies. First, within a medieval society with a form of state organization and an institutionalized religion closely connected to it, religion could be employed to further underpin the ideological – ethical justification of warfare, the launching of which was rationally motivated and justified through a natural-law cause. Second, the modern theoretical approach that defines the medieval and late medieval ‘holy war’ theory as analogous rather than antithetical to just war thinking applies to western Christian attitudes of just war (as developed from Saint Augustine’s ideas of just war into the concept of crusade) but not to East-roman Christianity (at least in the period before the emergence of the First Crusade). A closer look at the evidence about Byzantine positions towards the concept of the Crusade will enable us to further clarify whether this dichotomy of Christian attitudes with regard to the religious character of warfare between East and West continued after the emergence of the First Crusade.
2.1. Anna Comnena and the concept of crusade
The most important Byzantine source about the First Crusade, Anna Comnena, seems to me to present in the beginning of her narration a justification concept of the movement as an armed pilgrimage which was provoked by the problems that the Seljuks had caused to western pilgrims and in particular to the monk Peter the Hermit, one of the initiators of the movement:
“The reason of this upheaval was more or less the following. A certain Frank, Peter by name, nicknamed Cucupeter, had gone to worship at the Holy Sepulchre and after suffering many things at the hands of the Turks and Saracens who were ravaging Asia, he got back to his own country with difficulty. But he could not bear with having failed in his objective, and wanted to undertake the same journey again. However, he saw that he ought not to make the journey to the Holy Sepulchre alone again, lest worse things befall him, so he worked out a cunning plan. This was to preach in all the Latin countries that “the voice of God bids me announce to all the Counts in France that they should all leave their homes and set out to worship at the Holy Sepulchre, and make haste wholeheartedly with hand and mind to liberate Jerusalem from the hand of the Hagarenes”. And he really succeeded. For after inspiring the souls of all with this divine idea he managed to assemble the Franks from all sides, one after the other, with arms, horses and all the other military equipment.”
Along these lines, Anna presents her view about the starting-point of the First Crusade. She claims that it was the will of one person, Peter the Hermit, to visit the Holy Sepulchre that had caused the movement.
She highlights the story about a God-sent vision ordering him to preach the liberation of Jerusalem from the Agarenoi, the authenticity of which she seems to doubt, if we consider the vocabulary that she uses (βουλὴν βουλεύεται). However, it is obvious that she has no objection against the justice of the cause of the protection of the pilgrims and the liberation (λυτρώσασθαι) of former Christian (i.e. roman) lands. It is particularly interesting though, that she does not emphasize the religion of the enemies as a reason for war. She refers to them as Tourkoi, Sarakenoi and Agarenoi, but not as infidels. Later, she makes a clear distinction between the political aspect of the Crusade, which contradicted Byzantine interests and therefore was clearly viewed negatively by the Byzantines, and the ideological aspect which she seems again to have no objection against:
“And such an upheaval of both men and women took place then as had never occurred within human memory, the simpler-minded were urged on by the real desire of worshipping at our Lord‘s Sepulchre, and visiting the sacred places; but the more astute, especially men like Bohemund and those of like mind, had another secret reason, namely, the hope that while on their travels they might by some means be able to seize the capital itself, looking upon this as a kind of corollary.”
In this statement, it is once again evident that the Byzantine author differentiates between a just cause, i.e. free pilgrimage to the Holy Sepulchre, which she does not object to, and an unjust cause, i.e. an attack against Byzantium, which she clearly condemns. By no means though is she demonstrating an understanding for a concept of divinely ordained warfare.
With respect to that, I think the following question needs an answer:
Leaving the political aspect of the First Crusade aside, did the ideas of deus vult and remissio peccatorum or the idea of a just war, i.e. a war of a reconquest of Christian – roman land, initially shape the ideological image of the movement by the Byzantines? Regarding the Latin doctrine of indulgence, Kolbaba makes the reasonable observation that “the full import of a Latin doctrine could remain unknown in the East for decades, especially when that doctrine was continually changing”. In addition to that, it is important to say that the ideological image of the Crusades is a matter of discussion until the present day. Modern scholars have pointed out that the initial motive for the movement was the idea of a ‘reconquista’ in order to support the eastern Christians, the Byzantines, to regain their lands.
The papal proclamations at Clermont, however, granted the movement the image of an armed pilgrimage towards Jerusalem among the masses, which gradually evolved into a perception of divinely ordained warfare, since the main motivation of the participants became to fulfill God’s will and achieve plenary remission of sins through the killing of infidels.
Keeping all that in mind, I believe that the absence of a Byzantine polemic against the core ideas of crusade, which made it a notion of ‘holy war’ and which were similar to the core ideas of jihad, was due to the fact that the idea of a just cause of liberation of Christian-roman lands dominated the ideological image of the movement by the Byzantine elite.
This seems to me to explain why Anna Comnena, although hostile towards the movement, had no objection against the justice of the initial cause, as argued above. However, the difference of attitude towards the religious dimension of warfare between Byzantines and Latins seems to be revealedby one reference of Anna Comnena to the Latin image of the warrior-priest, which she explicitly rejects in her text:
“For the rules concerning priests are not the same among the Latins as they are with us; For we are given the command by the canonical laws and the teaching of the Gospel, “Touch not, taste not, handle not! For thou art consecrated”. Whereas the Latin barbarian will simultaneously handle divine things, and wear his shield on his left arm, and hold his spear in his right hand, and at one and the same time he communicates the body and blood of God, and looks murderously and becomes ‛a man of blood’, as it says in the psalm of David. For this barbarian race is no less devoted to sacred things than it is to war. And so this man of violence rather than priest wore his priestly garb at the same time that he handled the oar and had an eye equally to naval or land warfare, fighting simultaneously with the sea and with men.”
Although the Byzantines were aware of the existence of such a practice by Latin bishops already before the period of the Crusades, Anna’s reference makes it clear that they had no understanding for a higher religious cause, a divine order, which could overshadow the canonical norms and justify the participation of priests in warfare.
Obviously, the main subject of controversy between the Byzantines and the Latins during the passing of the First Crusade was not the religious character of warfare. On the one hand, the Byzantines were more concerned about the political consequences of this new phenomenon and focused less on its ideological particularities, proven by the fact that Alexios was primarily concerned to bind the leaders of the Crusade with oaths of loyalty to the Byzantine emperor. On the other hand, the main goal of the leaders of the Crusade on their way to the Holy Land was certainly not to manifest a full theory of the core crusade perception of war as a divinely ordained means of absolution (which by that time probably did not yet exist), but to ensure that Byzantium was going to support or at least not hinder their mission. The image of the First Crusade as a war of liberation of Christian lands (which also happened to be former roman lands) from the Seljuk-Turks along with the idea of a pilgrimage, facilitated an ideological understanding between the Crusader leaders and the Byzantine elite that could help to mitigate the controversial political interests. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that both sides highlighted this common idea, although from a different perspective and with different goals, in order to come to an agreement.
However, the presence of priests as warriors in a campaign so far away from their homeland certainly raised questions among the Byzantines regarding the motivation and the religious perception of crusading warfare.
The fact that Latin priests were willing and felt legitimated to fight against the infidel as well as against Christians for the sake of their cause was fundamentally opposed to eastern Christian mentality according to which war was a sin and as such could not be the task of a servant of God.
Therefore, Anna’s deprecatory reference to the participation of Latin priests as warriors in the First Crusade is a further indication of the principally negative Byzantine attitude towards a conception of warfare as a divinely ordained means of religion.
2.2. The particular case of Nicetas Choniates
Similarly to Anna Comnena, Nicetas Choniates seems to distinguish between the just cause of the reconquest of Christian land and the political aspect of the Crusade that posed a threat to the empire. Most interesting regarding his narration though is a speech that, according to Choniates, the French king Louis VII held before a battle against the Turks at the river Meander in Asia Minor in the course of the Second Crusade. The speech is dominated by a strong religious rhetoric which goes beyond the image of the Crusade as a just war of reconquest:
“Even though we be concerned about our going straight to the
eternal mansions (for God is not so unjust that he does not see the
cause which had led us on this course and therefore not admit us into
the virgin meadows and shady resting places in Eden, for we have
abandoned our country and have chosen to die for him rather than to
live)… now stand bravely and fight stoutly…
… As we are a sacred host and a God-chosen army, let us not
ignobly love our lives more than a Crusade-loving and everlastingly
remembered death. If Crusade died for us, how much more justified
are we to die for him? Let a noble end attend such a noble venture. We
shall fight with confidence in Crusade and in the full knowledge that
we shall crush the enemy; the victory will not be difficult, for none
will be able to sustain our onslaught, but rather they shall all give way
before our fit charge. Should we fall in battle, God forbid, to die for
Christ is a fair winding sheet. Let a Turkish archer strike me down for
Christ’s shake; one must fall asleep with fairer hopes in such a death
and ride the arrow like a chariot to the resting place in the beyond.
May we be spared an inglorious and sinful death.”
In these lines, the author reports on the full ideological concept that motivated the Crusaders. Here, war is not perceived as a just cause within the framework of liberation – reconquest, but as a means that ensured direct access to Heaven. This reference, made through a speech attributed to one of the leaders of the Second Crusade, demonstrates that Choniates was aware of the crusade concept of indulgence by the time he was writing his book.
H. Hunger has argued that this speech should not be viewed as authentic but rather as one of the author’s various rhetorical exercises which he liked to enrich his narration with. This fact makes the ideological statements of the speech particularly interesting with respect to the question of the author’s understanding of crusade. Hunger’s argument cannot be doubted, since no evidence of such a speech exists in the Latin sources of the Second Crusade.
Moreover, some similar rhetorical forms that Choniates uses in another part of his narration about the death of Frederick Barbarossa during the Third Crusade strengthen the argument that the author employed his own rhetorical qualities to create the speech.
However, two questions need to be answered in order to clarify the author’s position towards the ideological concept of indulgence: First, does Choniates present his personal ideological position in the speech or is he echoing Crusader ideas which he had become familiar with through written or oral information? In the second case, a further question is raised: Should this echoing of the crusade concept of indulgence within the framework of a religious rhetoric that is similar to the religious rhetoric employed in Byzantine warfare be considered proof that the author shared the same perception of warfare as a divinely ordained means of indulgence?
With respect to the first question, I think that there are some elements in the speech which show that Choniates was based on a historical core of Crusader positions. One of them is certainly the deprecatory reference about the romans being tolerant towards the infidel Seljuks and not determined to fight against them and reconquer their own lands. This reference implicates an accusation against the Byzantine emperor Manuel I and corresponds with the general Crusader attitude towards the Byzantines as unwilling to fight the infidel. In particular though, it seems to reflect the Crusaders’ dissatisfaction at the time with the fact that Manuel had concluded a peace agreement with the sultan shortly before the arrival of the Second Crusade; an action that had been regarded as treacherous towards the Christian cause of the Latins. Although Choniates is considered to be critical towards Manuel’s reign, his positions towards the emperor’s actions against the Second Crusade are contradictory. On the one hand, he views almost all measures taken by the emperor to control the Crusade and protect the capital as precautious and necessary. Furthermore, he is excusing Manuel for not being so keen to reconquer Byzantine territories from the Seljuks by saying that the emperor was occupied facing the Norman danger from the west. On the other hand, a certain criticism is traceable in his text, which corresponds with the Latin accusations against the Byzantines. He condemns the behavior of the Byzantine population towards the Crusade, for which, he says, it is not certain whether the emperor was to blame or not, whereas he directly accuses Manuel for ordering the use of a debased silver coin in the trade with the Latins as well as for sending letters to the Turks and encouraging them to take action against the Crusade. This contradictory attitude points out that Choniates probably drew his material from different sources some of which were reproducing Latin positions. Considering this along with the fact that the author presents the idea of indulgence through war coming out of the mouth of a Crusader King, avoiding thus to present it as his own, I think that the reference to the crusade concept of indulgence in the speech (which finds no equal in his whole work) does not reflect his personal ideas but is rather echoing the Crusader attitude. Consequently, Choniates’ willingness to reproduce that concept has to be further clarified in relation to his understanding of the Crusade as a just war of liberation of Christian (roman) lands from the Muslims as well as to the Byzantine perception of just war as a sin which was exceptionally forgiven by God and therefore could not exclude a good Christian soldier from Heaven.
Choniates’ praise for Fredrick I Barbarossa in his narration of the latter’s deeds on his way to the Holy Land verifies the author’s positive position towards the idea of the liberation of Christians and their lands from Muslim rule. Particularly informative of his understanding of crusade are the comments that Nicetas makes about Frederick’s death in June 1190 by the river Saleph near Seleucia. He emphasizes that this King was praiseworthy not only for his noble descent and because he ruled over many people:
“Setting aside fatherland, royal luxury and repose, the worldly happiness of enjoying the company of his loved ones at home, and his sumptuous way of life, he chose instead to suffer affliction with the Christians of Palestine for the name of Christ and due regard for his life-giving tomb. Thus he preferred a foreign land to his own and never slackened his rapid pace at the long distances, the grievous way, and the dangers posed by the foreign nations through which he had to pass. Thus the man’s zeal was apostolic, his purpose dear to God, and his achievement beyond perfection. Those who lift their minds to the higher life as loftily expressed in the Gospels and strive earnestly to attain it ignore mundane cares as so much refuse.”
Choniates adjusts in this case the Homeric motif of Achilles (who had chosen the pains and the glorious death at the battlefield instead of a long and luxurious life at home) to Christian morality in order to demonstrate the heroic character of Barbarossa. The author’s religious rhetoric focuses on Barbarossa’s objective to undertake the same labours with the Christians of Palestine who suffered under the foreign rule. In this way, Choniates emphasizes the element of liberation/defense, the basic element of the Byzantine just war concept, for the Christians of Palestine were defending themselves and their lands against the Muslims who had occupied territories which were not theirs. Protection and liberation are the two key-ideas which in Choniates ideological system connect Barbarossa’s campaign with a rationalized justice and, consequently, enable the author to characterize the latter’s cause dear to God, i.e. pious. In Byzantine mentality, if the cause of war was pious, then the Christian soldier fighting the war also remained pious.
With respect to that, it is important to note that Choniates is partly using similar rhetorical arguments as the ones found in the speech of Louis VII. The main difference though between the words of the Crusader King and his own comments on Frederick Barbarossa is that in the second case the author does not present war per se, i.e. the killing of infidels or death in war against infidels, as the means that enables Barbarossa to gain eternal life. Choniates states that the German Emperor gained eternal life because he had lived his life the way the gospels dictated, i.e. because of his piety. The reference to the gospels, that is, to the New Testament, in which no single statement can be found that relates the piety of a Christian with the waging of war and the killing of men, clearly demonstrates that within Choniates’ set of ideas it was not the act of war against the infidel that ensured life in Heaven for the Christian soldier, but it was the rational justice of the cause which allowed the pious Christian soldier to remain pious during an impious situation, such as warfare, and consequently gain the Kingdom of Heaven.
His ideological understanding of crusade was defined within the framework of the Byzantine just war concept according to which a Christian that lived his life in the way of the gospels and died in a just war gained eternal life not because but despite of his participation in warfare.
Comparing Choniates’ attitude towards Barbarossa’s death with the speech of Louis VII, in which the crusade concept is echoed, the issue of a differentiated perception of the common religious elements which designated the Byzantine just war and the Latin crusade is raised. The religious rhetoric, which was consistently employed by the Byzantines to emphasize the just character of their warfare and to underpin the idea that the pious Christian soldier fighting for a just cause did not commit a sin, corresponded to a great extent with the religious rhetoric of crusade in terms of expression.
The common religion and the common idea of defense/liberation, i.e. of a just cause favored by God, enabled the employment of the same religious symbols and similar rhetorical forms. However, the interpretation of the religious element was essentially different regarding the perception of war as a means of plenary remission of sins. The ideas of deus vult and remissio peccatorum which motivated the Crusaders and which find no equals in the Byzantine sources are the two key elements that caused this essential differentiation.
In order to make this point clear, let us examine Choniates’ attitude towards Manuel I’s campaign to Myriokephalon (September 1176) which has been characterized as a Byzantine Crusade, i.e. a ‘holy war’, by modern scholars. This characterization is based on the religious rhetoric of a sermon addressed to the emperor by Euthymios Malakes (early 1176) to praise the rebuilding of the fortresses Soublaion and Dorylaion. Two characteristic passages of the sermon which could be viewed as an indication for a crusade concept are the following:
“But, if I should die on the field of battle, it would be a good thing to die defending Crusade and to exchange the perishable earthly Kingdom for the unshakeable Kingdom of Heaven. In sum, it is either you will receive me again as a victorious and glorious emperor or you will call me an athlete of Christ and a martyr. This is what you said… … You said: soldiers, we labor to defend piety and go to war on behalf of God. We do not conquer Barbarian cities nor pursue what it is not ours. We do no injustice to others but fight for what is our own. For it is abominable that the inheritance of God is stolen and reduced by the impious.”
Based on the second passage, it is evident that the main idea which motivated and legitimated Manuel’s war was the just cause of restoration of roman rule over former roman territory, which in Byzantine thought was identifiable with defense. The reason that Manuel fought against the infidel according to the author is not because they are infidel, but because they are barbarians (i.e. foreigners) who have occupied roman land. His goal is not to conquer the cities of the infidel on God’s command but cities which formerly belonged to the Empire. Thus, he remains faithful to the just war concept of Leo VI’s Tactica according to which the Byzantines had no justification to fight against nations which stayed in their own territory irrespective of their religion. God and religion are here once more viewed neither as the source of motivation nor of justification for the launching of war. In this case, we deal with a reflection of the ideological concept according to which the role of religion in warfare was a secondary one attributing to Byzantine war a religious element by association within the framework of the Empire’s relation to its institutionalized religion. Consequently, the question arising is: If the principal motive of Manuel’s war was not a religious one, then what differentiates this war from any other Byzantine just war? The religious rhetoric about a war fought on behalf of God and his inheritance (which in this case clearly identifies with the Byzantines and their Empire) is not new and moreover it is similar to the rhetoric employed by the Byzantines also in wars against Christian enemies. Comparing the central idea of the sermon with the Byzantine understanding of just war as a war fought with the help of God to defend roman territories there is no reason to assume that the author had religion as the main motive of the war in his mind.
However, objection to this argument could be raised based on the first of the above cited passages, in which Manuel wishes for himself the title of an athlete of Christ and a martyr in case he should die in battle against the Muslims. Certainly, this is not the only case in Byzantine texts in which the title of an athlete of Christ, i.e. of a martyr, is related to Byzantine soldiers.
However, the equation of the soldiers with the martyrs in all these cases is expressed as a wishful appeal to God and not as an affirmative recognition of a plenary remission of sins and a martyr-status explicitly for those who lost their life in battle against the infidel. This interpretation is further underpinned by the fact that, apart from the rarity of such references in the sources, neither a cult of soldier-martyrs is evident in Byzantium (in the period of the Comnenoi or previously) nor an echo of a martyr-image of the soldiers killed in all relevant battles can be found in the sources.
With respect to this last argument, Choniates’ account of the Myriokephalon campaign contains no evidence of a crusade or a ‘holy war’ spirit, neither for the part of the preparation of the campaign in Constantinople (the total absence of a ‘holy war’ spirit for this part of the campaign is also evident in the work of Cinnamus) nor in the detailed account of the battle. The only religious element regarding the campaign is a reference to the emperor praying for God’s help in the church of ‘Hagia Sophia’ before leaving Constantinople:
“Now prepared for the expedition, he entered the Great Church which is named for the Divine and Ineffable Wisdom and there invoked the Divinity to be his ally and to grant him victory. But that He did not assent to these pleas was evident when at the war’s end victory was given to the enemy according to the inscrutable judgment of God.”
In this case, we are obviously dealing with common religious practice in the preparation of every Byzantine just war irrespective of the religion of the enemy. The emperor tried to highlight the justice of his cause by appealing to God’s help before going into battle, seeking in this way to strengthen the morale of his army. Choniates reports on the emperor’s appeal, even though he knows that the outcome of the war had not been successful, which indicated – as the author himself points out – that God’s judgment had not been favourable to the emperor.
The author’s position regarding the ideological framework of this campaign is particularly important for two reasons. First, he is the only contemporary Byzantine historian who delivers a full report on the campaign and what followed it. Second, his attitude towards the alleged Crusade of Manuel I will help us to further clarify the author’s own understanding of the crusade concept of indulgence which he is echoing in his book. The fact that no sign of a crusading spirit is evident in his narration raises the following questions: If Choniates had a perception of war similar to that of crusade, why should he conceal the alleged crusading spirit that presumably designated Manuel’s campaign according to Malakes’ speech, rather than highlight the ideological concept of soldier-martyr like the latter did?
The argument that the author avoids to manifest the ‘holy war’ character of a campaign, which ended as a failure, does not qualify in my view, if we consider that this failure did not prevent Choniates to report on the emperor’s appeal to God for help. Moreover, why should defeat deprive the war of its religious character? From Choniates’ standpoint, defeat certainly had not deprived the campaign of its just character. The author ascribes the defeat to God’s inscrutable judgment but never says that the cause of the campaign was unjust.
The most important evidence though that Manuel’s campaign does not represent a Byzantine Crusade or a ‘holy war’ and therefore does not reflect the preponderance of such a concept within Byzantine society is the total absence of a martyr-image for the numerous Byzantine soldiers who died by the hand of the infidel enemies in the Byzantine sources. According to the speech of Malakes, Manuel had said that he would either return victorious or die and become a martyr. If we accept that this statement was not only a wish, which the pious emperor expressed in terms of rhetorical exaggeration, but that it represented a social – religious practice which related to a broadly established perception of warfare as a means of indulgence and sanctification within Byzantine society, it is not victory that should have made the soldiers of Manuel’s “Crusade” into martyrs but death, even if it had come by a defeat. However, no evidence of a martyr-image for the numerous fallen soldiers can be found in Choniates’ account or in any other source. On the contrary, the latter reports only on the great frustration of the living soldiers after the battle, which was directed in an unusually disrespectful manner against the emperor himself and his policy by accusing him of greed for war and power. Even if those accusations against Manuel, as presented by Choniates, do not refer to a real incident but to the author’s attempt to put indirectly judgment on the Emperor’s policies within the framework of Kaiserkritik, they still reflect a certain ideological starting- point. This starting-point was designated by the absence of a preponderant idea within Byzantine society which promoted a perception of warfare as a divinely ordained means of absolution and, consequently, an image of fallen soldiers as martyrs.
The ideological image of Manuel’s campaign, as presented by Choniates, is also verified in anonymous poems, written to glorify the emperor’s action at Myriokephalon, in which no concept of crusade or of soldiers-martyrs is evident. The total absence of a martyr-concept in all other Byzantine sources for the campaign of 1176 along with the fact that Malakes highlights the idea of restauratio imperii in his sermon demonstrate in my view that the religious rhetoric, which is presented by the author in his speech, should be interpreted within the framework of the Byzantine concept of just war rather than of an alleged crusade or ‘holy war’ concept. The imitation of Crusader attitudes by Manuel I may be suggestive of his political need to impress the Latin world (which prepared at the time for a new Crusade), but it is by no means indicative of a dominating ideological perception of war as a means of indulgence and sanctification within Byzantine society.
As argued above, the perception of the reconquest of Christian – roman lands as a God-favored cause, which was common in both the concept of Byzantine just war and the concept of crusade facilitated the employment of a similar religious rhetoric by the ideological underpinning of warfare.
The perception of the relation between religion and war however remained different.
A condemnatory statement regarding the idea that war could be viewed as God’s command in the concluding lines of Choniates’ text further verifies the author’s differentiation from the ideological core of crusade. Following his description of a sculpture which depicted two wild animals involved in a deadly fight, the author makes the following comment:
“This mutual destruction and killing has persuaded me to say that these death-dealing evils, ruinous to men, not only are portrayed in images and not only happen to the bravest of beasts but frequently occur among the nations, such as those which have marched against us romans, killing and being killed, perishing by the power of Christ who scatters the warmongering nations, and who does not rejoice in bloodshed, and who causes the just man to tread on the asp and the basilisk and to trample underfoot the lion and the dragon.”
This comment relates to the events of the Fourth Crusade. The biblical idea that God destroys the warmongering nations is employed by the author as an implicit accusation against the Latins that had attacked and conquered Constantinople. Choniates says explicitly that God will help the righteous, who in his ideological system are clearly identifiable with the Byzantines, to triumph eventually over the unrighteous because God rejects bloodshed and punishes the nations which cause wars. The accusation against the Latins in this case is the same that Leo VI made against the Muslims in the Tactica.
In both cases, the criticism concerns the idea that war could be perceived and justified as God’s command, an idea that designated the ideological core of both crusade and jihād. Furthermore, Choniates’ statement also corresponds with Niketas Byzantios’ statement which rejects the Muslim idea of God as the source of justification for warfare. The explicit repudiation of the Latin idea of deus vult, which was fundamental for the motivation and legitimation of the Crusades as wars of religion, in the final lines of Choniates’ text concludes the image of the author’s differentiated attitude towards one of the core ideas of the crusade concept. His partly positive attitude towards the Crusades was based on an understanding of the justice of their cause, which was defined from his point of view by the idea of liberation of Christian- roman lands and not by the idea of a war against the infidel commanded by God. Certainly, the fact that the last part of Choniates’ work was written after the sack of Constantinople in 1204 implies that his attitude had been negatively influenced by this development. However, his negative position towards one of the core ideas of the ‘holy war’ concept cannot be simply viewed as an overreaction towards the consequences of the Fourth Crusade, since from an ideological point of view it falls into a line of Byzantine statements from the 9th century onwards, which demonstrate consistency and continuity in respect to the rejection of the idea that war could be divinely ordained and become a means of absolution.
2.3. Constantine Stilbes’ denouncement of the Latin concept of indulgence
This ideological continuity is further demonstrated and confirmed in the statements of Constantine Stilbes, which represent a direct and indisputable rejection of the religious dimension of crusading warfare. In his text on the errors of the Latins, written shortly after the fall of Constantinople (1204), the Byzantine author counts among the Latin religious errors the idea of war being a means of indulgence. From a total of seventy-five accusations against the Latins given by him, three of them are of great significance in regard to the question of Byzantine attitudes towards the ‘holy war’ aspect of crusade. In his thirty-eighth accusation, he raises the issue of the fighting priests, thus demonstrating an ideological alignment with Anna Comnena in this matter:
“38. The high-ranking priests participate in warfare and fight
and are killed or become the killers of men, the very ones that are
pupils of the nonviolent Christ and use the same hands to sanctify the secret body and blood.”
Furthermore, in accusations number sixty and sixty one he is referring directly to the matter of indulgence through war:
“60. Their [i.e. The Latins’] high-ranked priests approve of the slaughter of Christians and claim salvation for the ones doing that.
61. They glorify those among them, who are killed in battle, as saved and say that they enter heaven directly, even if they lost their lives fighting because of avarice or bloodlust or some other excess of evil.”
Here, we are dealing with a clear concept that rejects war per se as means of absolution. The author denounces in the first accusation (sixty) the idea that the killing of Christians could be rewarded with salvation. In this way, he explicitly condemns the Fourth Crusade that had turned against the Christians of Constantinople. In the following accusation, he makes clear that warfare in general cannot be considered a means of salvation. By saying that, he does not refer again only to wars fought against Christians, because he has done that already above. He now focuses on and criticizes the concept of crusade which was mainly perceived as divinely ordained warfare leading to absolution. The words he uses are carefully chosen in order to distinguish the concept of crusade from that of a just war. As I have already pointed out, in Byzantine conception the participation in a war fought for the maintenance of the roman Empire against any enemy, Christian or non Christian, was not considered a sin that would prevent the pious soldier from entering Heaven. From Stilbes’ standpoint, the Latins are wrong because they consider war per se to be a means that enabled a Christian soldier to gain salvation, even if the cause of the war was not just. It is obvious here, that Stilbes not only rejects the idea that war per se could be a means of indulgence but he also doubts the piety of the Crusaders and the righteousness of their cause. In that way, he presents a differentiated position towards the Crusade movement from that of the previous Byzantine authors. On the one hand, he demonstrates ideological continuity by denouncing the idea of war as means of indulgence; on the other hand, he goes a step further by refusing to recognize the just war aspect of the Crusades. This differentiation must be understood as a consequence of the Latin conquest of Constantinople that ultimately changed the image of the Latins by the Byzantines from Christian adversaries into impious enemies. As long as the controversy between Byzantines and Crusaders referred to the controlling of the re-conquered territories of the East, the first continued to view the latter as fellow Christians and showed ideological understanding for the just aspect of their cause, the reconquest of Christian- roman lands from the Muslims. However, as soon as the Crusaders attacked and conquered Constantinople they became impious enemies and therefore unworthy – from a Byzantine point of view – to serve a cause as just as the war against the Muslim occupation had been.
The argument that Stilbes’ rejection of the idea of spiritually meritorious death in battle was simply an exceptional reaction caused by the impact of the Fourth Crusade on Byzantine attitudes towards the Latin world and therefore cannot be considered representative for a general negative Byzantine position towards the crusade concept of indulgence, seems to me to ignore the ideological alignment between Stilbes’ statement and the statements of Theophanes the Confessor, Niketas Byzantios, Leo VI, Constantine Porphyrogennetos and Nicetas Choniates that unanimously reject the ideas that warfare could be justified as divine will and perceived as a means of absolution and sanctification. Taking this ideological line of continuity into account, it becomes obvious that the influence of the Fourth Crusade on the writings of Stilbes is not to be detected in his denouncement of the ‘holy war’ aspect of crusade but in the fact that he refuses to acknowledge the just war aspect of crusader warfare, which before the Fourth Crusade was generally acknowledged by the Byzantine elite.
3. Twelfth-century canonists’ positions towards the soldier-martyr concept
In order to conclude the image of Byzantine positions towards the concept of war as a means of indulgence and sanctification during the period of the Crusade (until 1204) we have to review the positions of the canonists of the twelfth century towards Nicephorus Phocas’ concept of soldier-martyr. Ioannis Zonaras is the only Byzantine author who seems to go against the stream in regard to the negative attitudes of Byzantine authors towards the perception of war as a means of salvation in the period from the ninth to twelfth century. The author’s report on Nicephorus Phocas’ concept of Byzantine soldiers-martyrs in his world chronicle gives the impression that he may had a positive attitude towards the idea of plenary remission of sins through the participation in warfare:
“It seems that he (Nicephorus Phocas) related everything to military deeds. For this reason, he promulgated a dogma that the soldiers who die in battle should be honored as martyrs and praised with similar anthems and be rewarded in the same way. And if it had not been for the patriarch and some high-ranking priests as well as some spokesmen of the senate, who opposed bravely by saying “how could those, who kill or die in war, be counted among the martyrs or viewed as equal to them, while the holy canons foresee a penance for them, not to receive for three years the tremendous and holy communion”, that holy decree would have been approved.”
Based on the last line of Zonaras’ report, in which he speaks of a “θεσπέσιον … θέσπισμα”, the author’s position towards Nicephorus Phocas’ appeal could be considered positive and function as an additional argument that even though the Church did not gave its consent to Phocas’ plan, the emperor’s idea was popular within Byzantine society. If we were to take Zonaras’ positive attitude towards the idea of spiritually meritorious death in battle for granted, then two facts imply a possible influence of the crusade concept on his differentiated attitude towards warfare: First, the fact that he writes in the twelfth century after the Second Crusade; and second, that his position towards this matter is different from Scylitzes’ position, whose work was probably written before or about the time of the First Crusade and served as Zonaras’ source for the period of Nicephorus Phocas.
In order to clarify that, the first question that needs an answer pertains to Zonaras’ position towards the First Crusade. The author’s short report on the movement includes not a single word that could even imply that he had an understanding or sympathy for the Latin concept of war as a divinely ordained means of indulgence. His position corresponds more or less with that of all other authors of the twelfth century who view the Crusades as a negative and unwelcome event. This fact should be considered at least as an indication that Zonaras’ attitude towards Nicephorus Phocas’ concept of indulgence, which dated almost two centuries earlier, was not influenced by the similar ideas of the crusade concept. Nevertheless, if that is the case, he remains the only Byzantine author of the period from the ninth to the twelfth century who seems to have a positive attitude towards the idea that warfare was a means of indulgence and martyrdom. Michael Glycas, who also writes in the twelfth century and who reports on Nicephorus Phocas’, while there is no appeal, follows Scylitzes by being critical towards it positive mention of the Crusades in his work.
In view of these facts, Zonaras’ allegedly positive position towards Nicephorus Phocas’ notion of ‘holy war’ deserves reconsideration. Elsewhere, I have already pointed out that his report on Phocas’ appeal to the Church contains two controversial statements: On the one hand, he characterizes Phocas’ proposal as a holy decree, which at first look seems to be a positive reaction. On the other hand, he speaks of brave opposition from the patriarch and other clerics and laymen, which hindered the approval of a new dogma by the synod. If the expression “holy decree” (θεσπέσιον …θέσπισμα) is considered to be positive, the same counts for the expression brave opposition (γενναίως ἀντέστησαν). That makes the report incomprehensible on an ideological level. The only way to solve this problem is to consider one of the two comments as ironic. From a linguistic point of view, the expression “θεσπέσιον …θέσπισμα” is characterized by an excessiveness that could be understood as ironic. The most important evidence though, that Zonaras – who was a canonist – was not fond of Phocas’ notion of spiritually meritorious death in battle is his comment on Saint Basil’s canon in which he makes the following observations:
“The saint [i.e. Basil of Caesarea] claims not in a demanding but only counseling manner that those who kill at war should refrain from the holy communion; it seems though to be a burdensome counsel the possible consequence of which is that the soldiers will be never in position to receive the holy gifts, even though they are being courageous and brave; … For what reason should the hands of those who fight on behalf of the state and their brothers in order to avoid captivity or to free those captured be judged unclean? … Thinking in that way, the older fathers did not regard those who killed at war as murderers, forgiving them because, as this saint also said, they were defending prudence and piety; … In his canonical letter to the monk Ammun, Athanasios who was great at sacred matters mentions explicitly the following: Murder is not allowed, but the killing of the enemy in battle is legitimate and praiseworthy. Therefore, I believe that the spiritual legacy of Basil of Caesarea never predominated; it lasted though through time as an ecclesiastical tradition. When the emperor Nicephorus Phocas demanded, as it has been narrated, that those who die in war be counted among the martyrs and dignified and praised as their equals, the high-ranking priests of the time argued that it is not correct to dignify them. Because they could not convince him, they used this canon as a last resort saying: How can we count among the martyrs those who die in war, whom Basil the Great forbade the receiving of the holy gifts for three years, because their hands were not clear?”
As a canonist, Zonaras knew well and acknowledged the ideological value of Saint Basil’s canon which the church had employed to oppose the emperor’s proposal. His main argument is that the canon had a counseling character and never prevailed as a canonical praxis of the Church. He never says though that the main idea of the canon (i.e. war is a sin) was wrong, but that the suggested punishment was extremely severe, i.e. unfair, for the Christian soldiers of the empire that were obliged to fight a just war for the protection or liberation of their brothers from enemy hands. This shows that his comment is not directed against the canon’s principle that warfare could not be a means of salvation, but only against the practical aspect of penitential chastisement, which contradicted the Byzantine raison d’état. His arguments clearly demonstrate that he was thinking within the framework of the Byzantine just war concept as presented in the Tactica. The cause that justified Byzantine warfare and exempted Christian soldiers from the burden of sin for the killing of men is here once more defined by the rational ideas of protection and liberation. In this regard, any penitential chastisements imposed by the church would unfairly exclude roman soldiers from the benefits of their religion, since the latter had no choice but to fight in order to defend themselves and their brothers.
Furthermore, the canonist makes explicit reference to the older church- fathers and in particular to the canon of Saint Athanasios in which killing in war was considered a sin exceptionally forgiven within the framework of the ecclesiastical oikonomia. The conception of forgiveness for the sin of killing in a war the cause of which is not a religious one that dominates Zonaras’ comment is essentially different from a conception of warfare as a divinely ordained means of absolution and sanctification. In addition to that, the canonist views Basil’s canon as belonging to the tradition of the church. This demonstrates that he meant only for the practical and not for the ideological aspect of the canon to be downplayed. This means that he considered its employment in case a matter of dogma came up as legitimate.
This explains why Zonaras not only does not object or refer negatively to the employment of the canon by the Patriarch against Phocas’ proposal in his comments but he also describes it in his chronicle as a brave reaction.
Comparing Zonaras’ thesis in his comments on Saint Basil’s canon with his thesis in his chronicle it becomes evident that the canonist did not share Phocas’ perception of warfare as a means of plenary remission of sins and sanctification. Theodoros Balsamon, another canonist of the twelfth century, demonstrates a similar attitude regarding the employment of Saint Basil’s canon by the Church against Nicephorus Phocas’ soldier-martyr concept.
He focuses as well on the issue of penitential chastisement for the soldiers and points out that the canon did not define ecclesiastical practice because of the problems that this would have caused to the armies of the empire.
Then, he reports on the employment of the canon by the Church against Nicephorus Phocas’ appeal without objecting to it. This shows that he also distinguished between the practical and the ideological aspect of the canon by objecting to the former and accepting the latter. The significance of the canon in the ideological tradition of the Church is further verified by the position of a third canonist of that period, Alexios Aristenos, who, contrary to the other two, argues that the canon of Saint Basil retained its practical value as well, even though it contradicted Saint Athanasios’ canon. In view of these facts, it is obvious that the canonists’ debate focused on the issue of the practical value of Saint Basil’s canon. Therefore, it can by no means be considered as an indication for a dichotomy of attitudes within the Byzantine Church in regard to the question of war being a means of indulgence. The canonists who criticize the canon do not object to the spirit that created this church law but to the penal measures foreseen for the maintenance of its spirit.
Byzantine polemic against the concept of jihād becomes evident in the sources over a century – at the least – after Islam had been established in the Arab world. Byzantine polemic against the concept of crusade dates also over a century after the emergence of that concept in the West. The great chronological distance in both cases shows that such concepts, besides taking some time to establish within the same society, took a longer time to become well known and cause reactions within neighbouring societies.
From a Byzantine perspective the Muslim concept related to a religious movement that was initially viewed as a Christian heresy and developed then into a different religion the followers of which were considered infidels.
Moreover, this concept was ideologically directed against the empire and its own religion, causing thus a political, military and religious controversy.
Conversely, the Latin concept emerged within a society that shared the same religion with the Byzantines and apart from certain political and cultural differences between the Hellenized East and the Latin West ideologically was not directed – at least in its initial phase – against the empire but corresponded in many aspects with its own war ideology. The ideological complexity of the crusade movement, which was generated by the idea of a reconquest of Christian-roman lands, but from the very beginning developed into an armed pilgrimage and a notion of divinely ordained warfare with spiritual merits for those participating in it, is the key for the decoding of Byzantine attitudes towards it.
The evidence from the Byzantine sources of the period before the Crusades demonstrates that the strong religious aspect of the Byzantine concept of dikaios polemos did not include the idea that war could be justified as divine will and consequently be perceived as a means of plenary remission of sins and sanctification. The source evidence after the First Crusade shows that the Byzantines were positive towards the idea of a war of reconquest of Christian (former roman) lands from the Muslims, which is explainable in respect of the ideological correspondence of such a concept with the Byzantine concept of restauratio imperii. The present-day theory which explains the absence of a Byzantine polemic against the ‘holy war’ aspect of crusade before 1204, based on the argument that the Byzantines were familiar with the idea of God commanding a war and rewarding the faithful soldiers with eternal life in Heaven, is questionable insofar as it fails to explain Byzantine rejection of these very ideas in the case of Nicephorus Phocas’ appeal to the Byzantine Church as well as within the framework of Byzantine polemic against the Islamic jihād. The problem is a theoretical one and concerns our understanding of the concept ‘holy war’ and its different notions within different societies. The main characteristic of a ‘holy war’ is that the justification of warfare is principally provided by the divine will which commands the destruction of the infidel. The propagated cause for war is in this case a purely religious one. By characterizing crusade or jihād a type of ‘holy war’ we recognize the different political, cultural and religious characteristics in the implementation of this concept in each society. This, however, cannot rule out the fact that the central ideas which designate both species of ‘holy war’, the Islamic and the Latin, remain the same. For instance, in the case of the Crusade as well as of jihād, it is neither the leadership of the Caliph or the Pope nor the use of the cross or the crescent as war symbols the decisive elements that make them qualify as notions of ‘holy war’, but the common biblical ideological core that facilitated in both cases the arbitrary justification of war action through an appeal to the divine will and, as a result, promoted a mass perception of warfare as a means to achieve the salvation of the soul. It is the preponderance of these ideas about warfare within both the Latin and Muslim society that makes the modern concept of ‘holy war’ in each case applicable.
In Byzantium, the firm rejection of these concrete ideas as presented in a number of written sources both in connection to the case of Nicephorus Phocas as well as to Byzantine polemic against jihād demonstrates that a notion of the ‘holy war’ concept never became predominant within Byzantine society before the period of the Crusades. This leaves us with two possible answers to the problem of the Byzantine understanding of crusade in the period from 1096 to 1204: Either the Byzantines regarded the Crusades as just wars of reconquest or the influence of the crusade ideas of deus vult and remissio peccatorum on Byzantine mentality after 1096 caused a change regarding the principal Byzantine attitude towards the relation between religion and warfare. The negative positions of the twelfth century canonists towards Nicephorus Phocas’ concept of soldier-martyr demonstrate that no such change of mind had taken place and speaks for an ideological continuity. This continuity is further verified by the negative attitude of Anna Comnena, Nicetas Choniates and Constantine Stilbes towards the issue of a fighting clergy as well as towards the idea that warfare could be justified as divine will and become a means of absolution. In this light, the long absence of a Byzantine polemic against the Latin ideas of divinely ordained warfare and spiritually meritorious death in battle before 1204 – although these were standing in clear contradiction to the preponderant conceptions within Byzantine society that the waging of warfare could not be justified as God’s command and that from a religious point of view just war (dikaios polemos) was principally perceived as a sin exceptionally forgiven by God – can be explained as a result of the interaction between the image of crusade by the Byzantines, which before the events of 1204 consisted in the familiar idea of a war of liberation/restoration favored by God, and the common religion, which facilitated the use of similar religious rhetoric and symbolism in warfare.
by Dr.Ioannis Stouraitis
“Byzantina Symmeikta”, Institute for Byzantine Research, National Hellenic Research Foundation, Athens 2011
source: IOANNIS STOURAITIS